FRONTLINE tells the story of how crisis and tragedy prepared Joe Biden to become America’s next president. Those who know him best describe the searing moments that shaped President-elect Biden and what those challenges reveal about how he will govern.
>> NARRATOR: As the nation
reckons with the assault on democracy...
>> One of the darkest days in the history of our nation.
>> FRONTLINE tells the story of America’s next President.
>> This man who’s wanted to be president for half a century and
failed, and now finds himself at this moment of really abject
national crisis that’s when the country sees him for the first
time. >> It will test every bit of
what Joe Biden has learned over nearly 50 years in public
office. >> Now on FRONTLINE - President
Biden. >> As today, I announce my
candidacy for the president of the United States of America...
Friends, today I filed the necessary papers to become
candidate for president of the United States.
Today I'm announcing my candidacy for president of the
United States. >> When people get in the habit
of running for president, and in the habit of wanting the
presidency, and in the habit, when they reflect on their
lives, of thinking they could win, and they could be a good
president, that's a hard habit to break.
Dreams die hard. >> NARRATOR: In the 2020
election, Joe Biden's dream of the presidency was fading.
>> He was seen as yesterday's news.
He was a very rickety ship. He was not as eloquent as he was
30 years ago, like most people wouldn't be.
And he also, you know, he was saddled with a very, very long
record, some of it going back to the '70s.
>> From NBC News. "Decision 2020: The Democratic
Candidates' Debate." >> NARRATOR: At the first
primary debate, that long, complicated record was a
liability. >> I'm going to now direct this
at Vice President Biden. You opposed busing.
And, you know, there was a little girl in California who
was part of the second class to integrate her public schools,
and she was bused to school every day.
And that little girl was me. >> It wasn't about the specifics
of the busing debate. It was a signal.
It was saying that this is a white guy who is so old that he
was taking a position on busing in the first place.
>> But, Vice President Biden, do you agree today-- do you agree
today that you were wrong to oppose busing in America then?
>> Precisely because he has such a long track record in American
politics, you can point to him being on the wrong side of
questions that are now considered to be completely
settled. >> NARRATOR: In the weeks that
followed, things didn't get better.
>> Meanwhile, in a stunning reversal, Joe Biden's campaign
struggles to match rival presidential candidates in
fundraising. >> ...numbers are down among
women, down among independents. The drop is primarily among
younger voters. >> NARRATOR: He struggled to
excite voters. >> ...Vice President Joe Biden,
struggling in the polls here... >> Joe Biden-- is his campaign
in trouble? >> He did not look like an
effective candidate. He lacked energy often.
He wasn't as crisp as a lot of people had hoped he would be.
>> NARRATOR: His campaign was in crisis.
>> Joe Biden presently trailing in fourth place...
>> ...surprised how bad Joe Biden did-- he fled the stage...
>> One of his senior advisers had to call him and have what
she described to me as the conversation you never want to
have with a candidate, which is, "We may be approaching the point
of having to shut this thing down."
>> Joe Biden is fighting for his political survival.
>> NARRATOR: It was a moment of peril.
>> ...make-or-break time in particular for Joe Biden...
>> NARRATOR: But Joe Biden had been here before.
>> Biden, fighting to survive after a fourth straight...
>> This is a person who had suffered significant setbacks,
both personally and politically. And out of that I think he had
come to a sense of what his strengths and weaknesses really
were. >> We're talking about a
half-century in public life, during which he experienced,
multiple times, the setbacks, any one of which would have, and
has, driven out candidates to leaving public life.
So the improbability of where he finds himself is unprecedented
in American presidential history.
>> NARRATOR: His life had prepared him for this moment.
Shaped by challenges... >> Stuttering is a fear problem.
>> NARRATOR: Tragedy... >> An automobile accident killed
the wife and baby daughter of Biden of Delaware...
>> NARRATOR: Crisis... >> ...plagiarized a law review
article... >> NARRATOR: Perseverance.
>> Tonight his campaign is doing damage control.
>> The Biden legacy-- perseverance through personal
agony. ♪ ♪
>> (stammering): Hope to p... Teach P.E.
...two s... (stuttering on "S")
Uh, s... Sisters.
Well, my... ...father is very strict.
>> Among the many causes of retarded speech are low
intelligence, hearing loss, emotional conflicts, poor
methods of the teaching of talking by the parents, brain
injury, and many others. For example, a child may stutter
as he comes out of the early stages of retarded speech.
>> NARRATOR: Joe Biden's formative challenge: he
stuttered. >> He came of age in a,
another time, in which people... (stuttering softly)
...weren't as open about disorders or disabilities or
When the common... ...prescription was...
"Buck up. Deal with it."
>> NARRATOR: Dealing with it: a rough-and-tumble childhood
in Delaware, his father a car salesman fallen on hard times.
For little Joey, Catholic school.
Nuns. >> He had an assignment he
had to memorize. He had to stand up and deliver
it in the classroom. >> NARRATOR: The words were in
front of him: "Sir Walter Raleigh was a gentleman."
>> When Joe read it, it went... (claps out rhythm): "Sir Walter
Raleigh was a gentle man." "Say that again?"
Mmm... "Sir Walter Raleigh was a gentle
man." And this went on three times.
>> He said "gentle man" instead of "gentleman."
And... the nun said...
(imitating nun): "Mr. B-B-B-B-Biden, what's that
word?" And this is a person in a...
position of authority, this is a person who's meant to protect
you. >> It was so embarrassing and
so enraging that Biden walked out of the room, he walked out
of the school. He walked all the way home.
(car motor starts) >> NARRATOR: Joey's mom, Jean,
marched him back to the school to confront his teacher.
>> The sister starts telling her how disrespectful Joe is,
and my mother, "Stop." She said, "Just tell me, did
you make fun of my son?" "Well, I..."
"Sister, did you make fun of my son?"
"Well..." And my mother said, "Well, I'll
answer it for you. You sure in hell did.
And if you ever, ever, ever do that again, I'm going to come
back and I'm going to knock your bonnet right off your head.
Do we understand each other?" >> NARRATOR: Bullied, harassed,
ridiculed, he was hell-bent on beating the stutter.
>> Biden would stand in front of his bedroom mirror holding a
flashlight to his face, and he would recite Yeats and Emerson.
>> NARRATOR: He kept pushing-- against the stutter, the
bullies-- and it paid off. >> People liked to be around
him, he really had a presence. You knew him when he walked in.
He was a little taller than most, and in very good shape.
He was a star football player on their team.
>> NARRATOR: Joey Biden found another way to fight back:
politics. >> In high school, he's
president of his senior class. Honestly, that's when he gets a
taste for it. The stutter is still part of him
during his senior year in high school, where he has to
introduce his family at the, at graduation, and he has to
stand up there and not stutter, and say this publicly.
And he does it. >> We want Joe!
We want Joe! >> NARRATOR: In the crisis of
stuttering, a life method: persevere.
Just push through. >> More medical research to
confer-- to conquer devastating diseases like cancer, and...
Not the end in, um, um, in themselves...
The UAW took ex-- credible cuts in their future...
>> Many people would say Biden's stutter is among
his most visible weaknesses, if not number one.
But it's also a source of his strength.
It's also... The main source of his grit and
his... determination to just be
there, competing. ♪ ♪
>> ♪ Kennedy, Kennedy, Kennedy, Kennedy, Kennedy, Kennedy... ♪
>> NARRATOR: As he began his political career, Joe Biden
had a role model: Irish, Catholic, good-looking.
Joe emulated what he could. Kennedy was drawn to politics,
Biden was drawn to politics. Jack had a photogenic wife and
children. Joe had a photogenic wife and
children. The Kennedys had a family
compound at Hyannis Port. The Bidens would have a family
compound in Wilmington, Delaware.
>> Joe Biden was always fascinated by the Kennedy
mystique. He really saw himself as a
natural heir to that tradition. >> I'm Joe Biden and I'm a
candidate for the United States Senate.
Politicians have done such a job on the people that the people
don't believe them anymore, and I'd like a shot at changing
that. >> NARRATOR: But Wilmington was
no Hyannis Port. >> We, the Bidens, we had no
money. We had no power or influence.
We didn't know anybody who was a big name who could help us.
>> Hi, how are you? >> Hi, how are you?
>> Joe Biden's my name... >> NARRATOR: Like the crisis
over his stutter, his political start was a struggle.
Behind in the polls, facing a powerful opponent: United
States Senator Cale Boggs, an ally of President Richard Nixon.
>> Joe Biden asked me about getting involved in his
campaign. I started off by telling him
that "There's no way you can win."
>> "Audacious" is a good term to apply to Biden back then.
This is a guy who wasn't yet old enough to hold the seat.
>> NARRATOR: It was a time of crisis in the country.
The Vietnam War had divided Americans...
>> Opposition to the war in Vietnam has set off
demonstrations in several major cities.
>> NARRATOR: ...igniting social unrest.
In Delaware, racial tensions boiled over.
>> The National Guard was called out in several cities to put
down riots. One of these cities was
Wilmington, Delaware. >> NARRATOR: Black residents
were angry. Joe Biden saw an opportunity to
draw on his personal experience with race-- back when he was
19, working at an inner-city pool.
>> He was a lifeguard. He was one of the two white
guys. He was a tall, slim, uh...
young-looking, good-looking, Elvis Presley-looking kind of
guy. >> That's how he got to know
some of the guys who were in the gangs.
He just seemed to have a natural instinct for getting to know
people, getting to understand them, but not being afraid to be
around them. >> We became friends.
We became friends. I was a very troubled child.
Okay? Leader of a gang, no food at
home, electric cut off, no soap-- sometime no soap and
water to take a bath, no hot water.
>> NARRATOR: Joe and Ricky-- he likes to be called "Mouse"--
forged a lifetime friendship. Mouse introduced Joe all around
the neighborhood. Over the years, Biden kept in
touch, building relationships in the Black community that
would pay off. >> Some people are in politics
because they're in love with policy, but they're not
necessarily in love with humans.
He loves the game of it. He loves the dance of it.
He loves meeting people. He loves hugging strangers.
>> NARRATOR: It became his go-to strategy.
>> President Nixon's landslide didn't help the Republicans...
>> NARRATOR: And in 1972, that method worked.
>> Some of those who did lose had been considered the most
certain to win. >> NARRATOR: The Black community
helped make Joe Biden a winner. >> In Delaware...
>> NARRATOR: By less than 3,000 votes.
>> ...whipped by 29-year-old Joseph Biden.
>> It was very close. People were still surprised,
you know, how this even happened.
>> All of you have done something that the political
pundits said there was no way in the world it could be done!
>> (cheering) >> That night, all the
college kids were so excited. A lot of us went to the Hotel
Du Pont ballroom. And it was packed, packed.
And there was so much excitement in the air.
I saw this woman coming through the crowd, and I realized that
it was Neilia, Joe's wife. And so I walked up to her, and I
shook her hand, and I said, uh, "Congratulations on your win."
And she said, "Thank you very much."
And that was our exchange. (rotary phone dialing out)
(siren wailing) >> NARRATOR: Biden and his
sister Val were in Washington setting up the office, hiring a
staff, when the crisis hit. >> The phone rings, and Val
gets it. And Biden is sort of paying
attention, and then he really starts paying attention when he
sees her face. >> I got a call from Jimmy
Biden. And he said, "Come home, now.
There's been an accident." And Neilia was in the car, the
station wagon, with the three children, Beau, Hunt, and Naomi.
>> Neilia was literally bringing home the Christmas
tree, with the kids in the car, the three kids in the car.
(siren blaring) >> NARRATOR: Campaign flyers
from the car helped identify the bodies.
>> She was hit broadside by a tractor trailer.
And she and Naomi, who sat behind her in the car seat,
they died instantly. And Beau and Hunter were
seriously injured. >> And he... he knew, he knew.
He knew from the look on her face.
>> My brother looked at me and said, "She's dead, isn't she?"
And I said, "I don't know, Joey."
I did know. Jimmy told me.
>> NARRATOR: He got to the boys; they were all that was left.
Broken hips, legs, arms, Beau was all cut up and Hunter's
skull was fractured. >> Since the accident, Biden
himself's been living at a hospital in Wilmington,
Delaware, taking care of his sons.
>> Today, the senator took his swearing-in ceremony...
>> Joseph Biden, Democrat of Delaware...
>> NARRATOR: Somehow, Biden pulled it together.
They held a swearing-in ceremony at the hospital.
>> It means a lot to me. I appreciate it, and I hope
that I can be a good senator for y'all.
I make this one promise, that if in six months or so, there's a
conflict between my being a good father and being a good
senator, which I hope will not occur-- I thought would, but I
hope it won't-- I promise you that I will, will contact
Governor-elect Tribbitt, as I had earlier, and tell him that
we can always get another senator, but they can't get
another father. >> NARRATOR: The road ahead for
Joe Biden would be tough, like the fight against
stuttering and the uphill political battle.
Once again, in crisis, he would persevere.
>> Valerie's going to help raise the children.
He's going to have a job in Washington and a home in
Wilmington, and he's going to ride that train back and forth.
He's going to be home for dinner every night with his kids and
his sister. And that's going to be the
family unit. It's not the one he chose, but
that's going to be the one. >> You don't lose a wife and
child at the point in life that he did and not grow from it.
You learn from those kinds of experiences.
What you do, though, is, like, uh, Muhammad Ali said one time,
"I've never been knocked down. I was always been getting up."
So Joe just never been knocked down, he's always been
getting up. (gavel banging)
>> Senator Biden. >> Thank you very much, Mr.
Chairman. I, I truly appreciate the
opportunity to sit in on this hearing...
>> NARRATOR: From his earliest days in the Senate, Joe Biden
was determined to make a name for himself.
>> You can't convince me that the guy you're kicking back to
isn't saying to you or one of your agents at some point, "Hey
look, I'm getting $100,000 from you, but Harry over here, he's
getting a $175,000," from uh, uh, whomever else.
You mean you guys didn't know that was going on?
>> He was seen as a bit of a show horse at first.
He was not someone who was waiting his turn.
In fact, he was fighting as hard for attention and notoriety and
the ability to stay as a U.S. Senator as anyone was.
>> His ambitions were never even thinly disguised.
He talked about it not long after he came to the Senate and
made clear that being in the Senate itself was not the only
thing he might want to do in life.
>> NARRATOR: What he wanted to do was become president.
(crowd cheering) >> Thank you very much!
>> NARRATOR: And by 1987, he thought he was ready.
It was a family affair. The boys were older, he had
remarried, had a new daughter. >> You know he said, "Let's just
test the waters. And so I said, "All right."
It sort of just snowballed. And we were into it, really,
before we even knew it. >> NARRATOR: But as he
campaigned, he headed towards another crisis, stemming from a
persistent question: what did he stand for?
>> I think that's always been one of his challenges as he
tries to go for president, he casts about for what he wants to
say. He casts about for the issues he
wants to put forward, and what he wants to say he believes in.
And it, and it feels cast about. >> NARRATOR: Then, one day,
a video of a British politician and a story that would give him
something to say. >> Why am I the first
Kinnock in a thousand generations to be able to get to
university? >> NARRATOR: Obsessed with the
tape, Biden studied it. He later wrote, "The ad was
riveting; I couldn't take my eyes off Neil Kinnock."
>> Was it because they were weak?
Those people who could work eight hours underground and then
come up and play football? Weak?
>> Biden could put himself into the Neil Kinnock story, family
in Scranton, Pennsylvania, family in the mines.
And so, in a sense, he absorbed the Kinnock story and making it
his own. >> The campaign begins in
earnest with the first votes for the next president in Iowa.
>> The candidates spent much of yesterday fanned out...
>> NARRATOR: In Iowa, during the primary, he took Kinnock's
words, made them his own. >> And now Mr. Biden.
>> Thank you very much. I started thinking as I was
coming over here, "Why is it that Joe Biden is the first in
his family ever to go to a university?"
>> He got up there and he gave his speech, and he got to the
end, the last three minutes, and he gave Kinnock, but he did not
attribute it to Kinnock. >> Is it because they didn't
work hard? My ancestors who worked in the
coal mines of northeast Pennsylvania and would come up
after 12 hours and play football for four hours?
>> Joe Biden borrowed it and applied it to his own life, and
made a moving sort of aria, a moving sort of part of a speech
about his own life, which in fact had been taken from Neil
Kinnock. >> Biden seems to be claiming
Kinnock's vision-- and life-- as his own.
>> NARRATOR: It became front- page news.
>> Biden has been caught with a sudden embarrassing comparison
of his recent campaign speeches. The first example came from
Great Britain. >> Why am I the first Kinnock
in a thousand generations to be able to get to university?
>> And I started thinking as I was coming over here, "Why is it
that Joe Biden is the first in his family ever to go to a
university?" >> NARRATOR: His campaign said
it was a mistake, that he had cited Kinnock other times.
>> For a second time in two weeks...
>> NARRATOR: But then, the avalanche.
>> He looks like a Joe Biden wind-up doll, with somebody
else's words coming out... >> NARRATOR: Allegations of
failing to cite a source in a law school paper...
>> Plagiarized a law review article...
>> NARRATOR: Taking lines from his political idols, the
Kennedys... >> One from John Kennedy's
inaugural, others from Robert Kennedy-- their words from the
lips of Joe Biden. >> Joe Biden comes off as
someone who has a lot of self confidence, but obviously
there's an imposter syndrome dynamic at work here.
Because if you feel like you have to make up stuff about
yourself and invent stories that are not your own, and then do it
in such a self-destructive way in which you can be caught, that
speaks to a level of character, and certainly insecurity, that
is common in lot of politicians.
>> Delightful to see you all here.
You know my wife, Jill. >> Pulling out of the 1987
presidential race was really devastating to, to Joe and to me
and to our family. >> Thanks, folks, my wife and I
thank you very much. >> NARRATOR: Biden lost this
fight... >> Delaware Senator Joseph
Biden dropped out of the hunt... >> Joe Biden blames mostly
himself for blowing it. >> NARRATOR: But he believed
he'd have another chance. He returned to the Senate to
rebuild. >> It wasn't as though, having
lost in 1988, he faded away or disappeared.
He has positions in the Senate that give him power and clout
and, in a sense, a national platform from which to continue
to kind of project himself as a leader of the Democratic Party.
>> Committee chairman Joseph Biden opens confirmation
hearings for the nation's 106th nominee...
>> NARRATOR: He concentrated on his job as the chairman of the
powerful Senate judiciary committee.
>> President Bush says the American people are supporting
his choice for the Supreme Court.
>> NARRATOR: It was there he would face his biggest challenge
yet-- the controversy over the nomination of Clarence Thomas to
the Supreme Court. >> Good evening, we begin
tonight with the potential for political explosion on Capitol
Hill. >> Clarence Thomas ran into
trouble today... >> Questions are growing over
charges of sexual harassment against Thomas...
>> NARRATOR: This affidavit charged that Thomas sexually
harassed a former employee, Anita Hill.
>> It seems to have been a nightmare for Joe Biden.
As a man, he felt uncomfortable about it.
As a white man, he felt uncomfortable taking Clarence
Thomas, a Black man, on about it.
Um, and the whole subject matter just made him incredibly
uncomfortable. >> But committee chairman Biden
conceded tonight that new information about the
allegations... >> Drama and history...
>> NARRATOR: With the crisis growing, Anita Hill was called
to testify. >> The hearing will come to
order. >> Anita Hill comes to
Washington to tell the Senate her side.
>> Welcome, Professor Hill. >> ...for what everyone
anticipates will be... >> Professor, do you swear to
tell the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help
you God? >> I do.
>> Thank you. >> NARRATOR: Biden's committee
was all white men. The "Men of the Senate," as
they were called. >> There was not a single woman
who might have understood her story from a woman's point of
view. >> Can you tell the committee
what was the most embarrassing of all the incidences that you
have alleged? >> I think the one that was the
most embarrassing was his discussion of, of pornography
involving these women with large breasts and, and engaged
in a variety of sex with different people or animals.
That was the thing that embarrassed me the most and made
me feel the most humiliated. >> Here in Illinois, women were
just mesmerized by the hearings, outraged at what had happened.
They looked up and saw a very non-diverse United States Senate
judiciary committee. There was not a woman there, not
to mention person of color. It was just all these, like,
cookie cutters, and folks were really horrified by it.
>> Let me now yield to my friend from Pennsylvania, Senator
Specter. >> NARRATOR: Biden's close
friend, Republican Arlen Specter, led the charge against
Hill. >> I find the references to the
alleged sexual harassment not only unbelievable, but
preposterous. >> NARRATOR: He cast doubt on
her memory. >> How reliable is your
testimony in October of 1991 on events that occurred eight, ten
years ago? >> NARRATOR: He suggested she
was exaggerating. >> You took it to mean that
Judge Thomas wanted to have sex with you, but in fact he never
did ask you to have sex, correct?
>> No, he did not ask me to have sex.
>> That was an inference that you drew?
>> Yes, yes. >> Thank you, Professor Hill.
>> There were these searing images of this all-white panel,
Joe Biden right in the middle of it, grilling Anita Hill,
sometimes in quite hostile fashion.
And Joe Biden was seen as a real sort of ringleader to that.
>> NARRATOR: Biden gave Clarence Thomas the last word.
He strongly denied the allegations.
>> This is a circus. It's a national disgrace.
And from my standpoint as a Black American, as far as I'm
concerned, it is a high-tech lynching for uppity Blacks by a
committee of the U.S., U.S. Senate, rather than hung from a
tree. >> Very powerful.
I mean, what it did was, it shamed these white senators.
And it certainly seemed to shame the Democrats, who had
just been accused of lynching a Black man.
(gavel bangs) >> NARRATOR: Biden would end up
voting against Thomas, but his handling of the hearing damaged
him politically. >> It made him the face of an
out-of-touch body. And really wounded his
prospects of a future run for president.
He had some work to do, he had some reputational rehab to do.
>> NARRATOR: Biden turned to his method for survival in crisis:
acknowledge the problem and repair the damage.
>> Joe is always able to say, "Yeah, I didn't handle that
quite right. Let me see what I can do better
the next time." >> Carol Moseley Braun has
entered political history. She's the first African American
woman elected to the U.S. Senate.
>> Big changes here, a kind that have history written all over
them. >> NARRATOR: "Fixing things"
began by recruiting the first Black woman elected to the
United States Senate. >> Braun's anger over the
Clarence Thomas hearings turned her into a candidate.
>> NARRATOR: Biden wanted to make sure Moseley Braun joined
his committee. >> I made a joke, which he
didn't think was funny at all. I said, "You just want Anita
Hill on the other side of the table."
He did not laugh. He didn't think it was funny.
And he still probably doesn't. (laughs)
>> NARRATOR: He would end up convincing her and Dianne
Feinstein to join the committee. Joe Biden was rebuilding with an
eye on the ultimate prize: the presidency.
>> Half a dozen times in his career he faces moments like
this where a normal person looks in the mirror and says,
"This is never going to happen for me, either because my time
has passed or because I've humiliated myself or because
I've been on the wrong side of an issue."
And he just keeps coming back. >> Another day, another entry
in the presidential race. Delaware Senator Joe Biden is
the ninth Democrat to jump... >> NARRATOR: It was 2007.
Joe Biden was running for president, again.
But that very day... >> It sure isn't easy running
for president these days... >> NARRATOR: It all blew up.
>> This was not a good day for Joe Biden, was it?
>> No, it really wasn't, Katie. >> ...just got into the race
today, and no sooner than he did, he talks his way into a
national controversy. >> ...spent much of the day
discussing these comments he made to a newspaper reporter
about Senator Barack Obama. >> I mean, you got the first
sort of mainstream African American who is articulate and
bright and, and clean, and a nice-looking guy, I mean, it's,
that's a storybook, man. >> Some people listening to
those descriptions of Obama-- "articulate," "clean"-- heard
racial overtones, or, at the very least, condescension.
>> I think when people heard the "clean and articulate" line,
there was a wave of eye-rolling, certainly among African
Americans. It was the kind of
well-intentioned but benighted commentary that you expect from
people who inhabit environments where there aren't very many
Black people, and the United States Senate has historically
been a prime example of that. >> Tonight, his campaign is
doing damage control. >> Joe Biden's apologizing for a
remark he made about Senator Barack Obama...
>> NARRATOR: In the months that followed...
>> Joe Biden dropped out of the race last night after finishing
poorly... >> NARRATOR: Once again,
Joe Biden's campaign would collapse.
>> The latest news is that Joe Biden is dropping out of the
race. >> NARRATOR: But he wasn't
taking himself out of the game. He'd make it personal-- build
a relationship with Obama. >> Out of competition came
mutual respect, and mutual respect led to a real
relationship, a friendship. And Joe Biden became somebody
that President Obama looked to for advice and counsel.
>> Senator... (people talking in background)
>> You are not going to get anything out of me on the vice
presidential thing-- nothing. >> NARRATOR: Soon, that
relationship would pay off, as Obama sought a running mate.
>> I am gonna say that I've, I've made the selection, and
that's all you're going to get. >> When Barack ran he needed the
support of someone who knew his way around government.
And that was Joe Biden. >> NARRATOR: Obama asked him to
be on his ticket as vice president.
At the house in Wilmington, the Biden inner circle
gathered. >> He was not going to do it.
I mean, there's no doubt he was not going to do it.
We had another one of those family meetings and a few key,
key people. >> The kids said to me, "Mom,
you have to talk Dad into running."
And I said, "Joe, this is such a great moment in history."
>> His ma said, "Well, well, Joey"-- she called him Joey--
she said, "Well, Joey, you're telling me that the first
African-American president in history thinks that you can
help him get elected, and you're saying no?"
Game, set, match, it was over. (laughs)
>> Barack Obama is projected to be the next president.
>> Senator Barack Obama of Illinois...
>> NARRATOR: He'd turned a political crisis into a
relationship, and became vice president.
>> 47 years old, he'll become the president...
>> He had already squared away in his mind that he understood
that Barack Obama was president, Joe was vice president.
And Joe understood the job of vice president and, and, uh...
and wore it well. >> NARRATOR: In the Obama White
House, Biden brought with him something the president didn't
have: relationships in Congress spanning decades.
>> These were his recently former colleagues, and he knew
that he could call them and they would take his call, and that he
could go and thrash issues out with them with a degree of
comfort that President Obama didn't have, because he hadn't
known them as long as Vice President Biden.
>> NARRATOR: Biden became Obama's trusted partner.
>> The real question isn't what thing did you do, if you're vice
president. The real question is, how much
influence did you have? And I think Biden understands
power and leveraging power. I think he had a genuine
relationship with Obama, and they spent a lot of time
talking. But I think he was a very
influential vice president, in that way, and an extremely loyal
vice president. >> NARRATOR: In return, Obama
bestowed on Biden something special-- a kind of political
sainthood they called the "Obama halo."
>> Joe Biden has the Obama halo, everybody knows that.
That is the cleansing of Joe Biden and everything that may
have happened. And there is such a great irony,
that someone who was the architect of the '94 crime bill,
and a white man of this age, when you think about Anita
Hill, his crutch, his... the reason for his success is a
Black man with a funny name who's kind of skinny from Hawaii
by way of Kansas. >> Black lives matter!
Black lives matter! Black lives matter!
>> NARRATOR: In those years as vice president, Biden would
confront yet more crises. Among them: the building racial
tensions... >> Don't touch me.
>> NARRATOR: Growing outrage over police violence against
African Americans. >> Black lives matter!
Black lives matter! >> NARRATOR: Then, news of a
revenge shooting against the police.
>> We begin tonight with breaking news.
A deadly police shooting in New York City.
>> Two New York City police officers are dead following an
ambush Saturday afternoon. >> They were, quite simply,
assassinated. >> Amateur video captured the
frantic scene, as paramedics desperately tried to save the
lives of officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos.
>> NARRATOR: When it came to matters of race, Obama relied on
Biden to walk a fine line he could not.
>> One of Joe Biden's chief responsibilities was to be an
ambassador to the country, specifically to the white parts
of the country, where Barack Obama's presence might have only
further inflamed the situation. >> NARRATOR: Now Biden was
dispatched to New York. >> 25,000 police officers are
all there... >> NARRATOR: It was tense.
>> A sea of blue filled the city streets...
>> NARRATOR: He used his method: keep it personal, talk directly
to the family of Officer Rafael Ramos.
>> Our hearts ache for you. I know from personal experience
that there is little anyone can say or do at this moment to,
to ease the pain, that sense of loss, that sense of loneliness.
>> Joe Biden has been defined in public life by heartbreak and
empathy. That when Joe Biden steps up at
the funeral, you know that those tears are real.
>> ...that the time will come. The time will come when Rafael's
memory will bring a smile to your lips before it brings a
tear to your eyes. That's when you know it's going
to be okay. I know it's hard to believe
it'll happen, but I promise you, I promise you it will happen.
>> It's an odd role in public life to be known as a person
associated with grief. And Joe Biden never wanted to be
that person, actually. It was not how he imagined his
own political future. ("Taps" playing)
But because of his life, he ended up being this public
political symbol of suffering and of resilience.
And eventually he embraced it. But he actually didn't want to
be that. ("Taps" continues)
>> NARRATOR: That day, there was unfinished business.
Biden wanted to see Officer Wenjian Liu's family.
>> We came out of the church. And Joe said, "I want to offer
my condolences to him, as well, to them, to that family."
(siren beeping) >> He wanted to go and meet them
and talk with them. So the police worked it out so
that we could visit. And they had a translator there.
>> I can remember walking up the stairs with the, with an
interpreter. And the family was all crammed
into this tiny kitchen. And we sat and we talked to
them. And we must have been in
there, I don't know, a good hour.
>> I started to notice that Wenjian Liu's father had rarely
left my side. Occasionally, he would lean into
me so that his shoulder touched my arm.
"Thank you," he kept saying. "Thank you, thank you."
>> We went out on the sidewalk. And the father, who didn't even
speak English, I mean, just held on to Joe.
And, I mean, he was so grateful that Joe had come to offer
condolences to the family. >> We stood there for a long
while, embracing on the little sidewalk in front of the house
where he had lived with his only son, just two fathers.
I understood all that he wanted me to know.
>> NARRATOR: After decades in politics, Biden seemed to have
finally found his place. But soon after the crisis in New
York-- yet again a personal crisis.
(pipes and drums playing) Biden was burying his own son,
Beau. (pipes and drums playing)
>> He was the apple of Biden's eye.
He was not just someone who he thought was brilliant and
successful and so proud of him. It went beyond pride, it was
almost like, "He's the perfect version of me."
>> NARRATOR: Beau had served in Iraq.
He was attorney general of Delaware.
They talked about the presidency someday.
>> Joe often describes him as Joe 2.0.
And he looked like his dad, he had a lot of the same skill sets
as his father-- he was very charismatic, he was charming, he
was funny. >> NARRATOR: But then, brain
cancer. Death at 46.
>> Beau Biden, former Delaware attorney general and eldest son
of Vice President Joe Biden, died...
>> ...Vice President Biden's office was the first to announce
his son's death... >> ...vice president was with
his son Beau when he passed away tonight...
>> Very sad news, Beau Biden lost his battle with brain
cancer. >> Family and friends gathered
at St. Anthony's Church in Wilmington yesterday to pay
their respects-- some waited in line for up to six hours.
>> Lines, lines five blocks long outside the church.
>> NARRATOR: At one point, after several hours, a surprise.
>> There was Mr. Liu and his wife.
And they came to, uh... give us comfort.
It was just two men, really, who had gone through something
horrible, um, just offering comfort to one another.
>> NARRATOR: Before Beau's death, Biden had been
considering another run for president.
Now the question was not just "would he," but "could he?"
>> I was, happened to be in Obama's White House, and he
walked in. And I honestly...
It was almost like I didn't recognize him.
This was shortly after Beau died.
He just looked like he had aged years and years in such a short
amount of time. >> NARRATOR: Through crisis and
tragedy, Joe Biden had his eyes on the presidency, but now, in
grief, he would decide to stand down.
>> Please raise your right hand and repeat after me.
I, Donald John Trump, do solemnly swear.
>> I, Donald John Trump, do solemnly swear.
>> NARRATOR: For the first time in decades, Joe Biden was a
private citizen, watching Donald Trump’s polarizing presidency.
>> So help me God. >> So help me God.
>> Congratulations, Mr. President.
(cheers and applause) ♪ ♪
>> White lives matter! White lives matter!
White lives matter! White lives matter!
White lives matter! >> Then came Charlottesville.
That was really the tipping point.
When he heard President Trump say, "There are very fine, some
very fine people on both sides," that was it.
That was the tipping point. >> NARRATOR: Biden watched,
increasingly alarmed, violent clashes between white
supremacists and counter protestors.
>> It's hard to believe, based on his own statements, that Joe
Biden doesn't see some level of personal responsibly for the
rise of Donald Trump. Joe Biden was the vice president
and he chose not to run for president.
You have to imagine that's weighed pretty heavily on Joe
Biden. >> NARRATOR: He decided to do
something about it. At 76 years old, he would run
one more time. >> Today I am announcing my
candidacy for president of the United States.
>> Through the Democratic primaries, he was not, you know,
at the top of his game. He kind of staggered along.
He didn't do terribly well when the voting started.
>> Joe Biden appearing to shrug off an apparent fourth place
finish in Iowa... >> NARRATOR: Fourth in Iowa.
>> Biden may not have enough cash even to make it through
Super Tuesday... >> NARRATOR: Fifth in New
Hampshire. >> After three straight losses,
Joe Biden is now... >> NARRATOR: But he stuck with
his playbook... >> ...certainly damaged his
fundraising ability... >> NARRATOR: Stay in the center,
make personal connections, reach out to Black voters.
>> As he ages, he's a better candidate every time.
He does not waver. He does not appear to be a guy
who goes with the wind, even when he appears to be losing and
out of step with his own party. >> Joe Biden desperately needs
South Carolina if he has any chance...
>> NARRATOR: His last hope... >> ...make or break time in
particular for Joe Biden... >> NARRATOR: ...South Carolina.
>> ...it all rests on South Carolina...
>> Joe Biden had spent a lot of time in South Carolina.
He can relate to South Carolinians.
South Carolina was very, very important to Joe Biden.
>> ...NBC News is projecting former Vice President Joe Biden
is the winner... >> NARRATOR: And the state's
Black voters gave him a victory. >> ...was reinvigorated largely
by Black voters in this state... >> Joe Biden wins big...
>> NARRATOR: Three days later... >> In a political earthquake,
these are the results nobody saw coming.
>> NARRATOR: ...he rode the momentum and dominated Super
Tuesday. >> He pulled off one of the
biggest political upsets in modern political history.
>> NARRATOR: Soon, he'd win the nomination.
(cheers and applause) >> In its own way, it's the
culmination of all of his training and ambition and his
mistakes and his regrets and his attempts to be better.
And it, and it came together. At last.
>> Biden has made his pick. >> NARRATOR: And when the time
came... >> ...historic decision from
former Vice President Joe Biden. >> NARRATOR: ...he turned to
the opponent who'd gone after him on the campaign trail,
Kamala Harris. >> ...Kamala Harris as his
running mate. >> NARRATOR: ...and picked her
as his running mate. >> ...African American community
will help propel him to the White House.
>> It was an opportunity for him to distinguish himself from
Donald Trump. "That I actually want to bring
the person who's criticized me most harshly into the fold
because I value dissenting opinions."
And that was part of the message that was being sent with Kamala
Harris. >> ...the coronavirus crisis in
this country is taking a dangerous turn...
>> The true cost of COVID, measured not by numbers, but
families... >> NARRATOR: He ran for
president in the midst of a profound national crisis...
>> COVID-19 is now the third leading cause of death in the
U.S... >> Unemployment now soaring to
14.7%... >> Millions of Americans on
the brink of financial ruin. >> The moment plays to his
strengths in ways that other moments he ran probably did not.
>> ...it has been double the trauma, first the global
pandemic and now the traumatic death of George Floyd.
>> A new wave of grief in the form of police brutality.
>> We're living in a country that's experienced, in 2020, a
ton of loss. >> ...disappointment, emptiness,
hopelessness, and so much fear. >> And here you have a man whose
life has been defined in a lot of ways by loss.
>> NARRATOR: Joe Biden told voters he understood and
promised he would be there for them.
>> You folks at home, how many of you got up this morning
and had an empty chair at the kitchen table because someone
died of COVID? How many of you are in a
situation where you lost your mom or dad and you couldn't even
speak to them, you had a nurse holding a phone up so you could
in fact you could say goodbye. >> You would have lost far more
people. Far more people.
You would have been... >> ...and by the way...
>> It's sort of a political story you could not have
imagined. This man who's wanted to be
president for half a century and failed to do it over and over,
and now finds himself at this moment of really abject national
crisis, and that's the moment when the country sees him for
the first time, really. >> We've reached a historic
moment in this election. Joseph R. Biden Jr. is elected
the 46th president of the United States.
>> NARRATOR: Finally, after five decades-- victory.
>> And Joe Biden and Kamala Harris will receive the most
votes of any presidential ticket ever.
>> The people of this nation have spoken.
They've delivered us a clear victory, a convincing victory, a
victory for we, the people. (cheers and applause)
>> NARRATOR: Now Joe Biden faces his biggest challenge yet.
>> I don't think any president, certainly in my lifetime, has
faced the problems that Joe Biden will face as the new
president-- the pandemic, a weakened economy, the racial
issues that are on the table. To do it when the country is as
divided as it is will test every bit of what Joe Biden has
learned over nearly 50 years in public office.
>> Go to pbs.org/frontline for
the latest FRONTLINE “Transparency Project”.
Explore dozens of interviews from the film.
>> Joe Biden has been defined in public life by heartbreak and
empathy. >> You’re talking about a half
century in public life. >> And check out our podcast
with director Michael Kirk. >> Is he right for the times? If
he is, it’s a presidency for the century.
>> Connect with FRONTLINE on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter
and watch anytime on the PBS App or pbs.org/frontline.
Captioned by Media Access Group at WGBH
access.wgbh.org >> For more on this and other
"Frontline" programs, visit our website at pbs.org/frontline.
♪ ♪ FRONTLINE's,
"President Biden" is available on Amazon
Prime Video. ♪ ♪